Title holders Los Angeles Galaxy regained their top form to take over the role of favourites in the decisive championship phase. The Californians, who won the title in 2011, with superstar David Beckham and top players such as US international Landon Donovan and Ireland’s Robbie Keane, performed below par during the regular season of the Major League Soccer (MLS) to finish a poor eighth among the 19 teams after 34 matches. But since the start of the play-offs at the end of October Galaxy have switched into fifth gear, and their opponents can’t keep up with LA’s pace.
Galaxy won the first leg of the final for the Western Conference championship 3-0 against the Seattle Sounders on November 11. In the first final of the Eastern Conference, the semi-final for the big MLS final, Dynamo Houston also dominated D.C. United from Washington 3-1. Thus there could be a repeat of the 2011 final on December 1. It will be decided in the second leg of the Conference finals on November 18. If Los Angeles and the Texans from Houston were to fight for the MLS championship, it would be a battle between two teams who finished in lowly eighth and ninth places in October at the end of the regular season.
LA Galaxy had to go a long way to regain the standard of last season. Firstly they had to play a knock-out match with the Vancouver Whitecaps in the round of 16. Galaxy won this encounter 3-1 against the best of the three Canadian clubs playing in the MLS, so qualifying for the quarter-finals against the San Jose Earthquakes. Though LA lost their home match 1-0 in front of 27,000 spectators at Home Depot Center, Beckham and Co. triumphed 3-1 over the Quakes in the return leg in Santa Clara, watched by 10,744 supporters. Keane scored two goals, and Mike Magee added the third before halftime. Victor Bernadez finally netted a consolation goal in added time.
Galaxy were among the best four teams in the MLS for the third time in a row, with their fellow Californian rivals from San Jose, the best team during the regular season, suddenly dipping in form. The Earthquakes had topped the tables after 34 matches, received the Supporter’s Shield and qualified for the CONCACAF Champions League.
Last year Los Angeles had ascertained this “interim title” and then marched on to win the championship. This year the Earthquakes were hampered with various problems, and due to injuries to regular players they lost to the experienced team from LA, which gave the impression they had simply done what was necessary in the many regular matches. The two quarter-final matches between Seattle and Real Salt Lake proved thrillers. They played a goalless game in front of 34,941 spectators at CenturyLink Field in Seattle in the Federal State of Washington. In the second leg at Rio Tinto Stadium (19,657) in Sandy, Utah, the visitors from Seattle grabbed the upper hand thanks to a late goal by Mario Martinez in the 81st minute. Seattle had made it into the semi-finals. But disillusion followed for the team based around German Christian Tiffert. Galaxy had finally found their traditional form and were superior in the first encounter against the West Coast team from the north. And again Keane (two) and Magee (one) scored the goals for the 3-0 victory.
Across the country in the east, runners-up Houston were forced into a knock-out match, just like LA, which they won 2-1 at Chicago Fire. Then the Texans beat Sporting Kansas City in the quarter-finals, with a 2-0 win in front of 20,689 fans at home at BBVA Compass Stadium and a 1-0 defeat at Livestrong Sporting Park (20,884) in Kansas City. The other quarter-final in the Eastern Conference was very tight between Washington and New York. D.C. United failed to use their home advantage at RFK Stadium (17,556) in the US capital and drew 1-1 with the Red Bulls. But in the second leg in New York, D.C. United achieved a 1-0 away win and made it into the Conference final. Nick DeLeon scored the Golden Goal in the 88th minute in front of 14,035 spectators. The match had been postponed for one day on November 7 due to a snowed-in pitch.
DeLeon also put Washington ahead against Houston in the MLS semi-final, but the Texans then made it 3-1 with Andre Hainault, Will Bruin and Kofi Sarkodie scoring the goals. A major sporting miracle will be needed to prevent Houston meeting Los Angeles again in the final on December 1.
Eliminated clubs are already reassessing their squads for the next season. Chicago Fire extended their contract with the former German international Arne Friedrich, 33, by one year, allowing the defender, after 23 matches, to continue with the Fire. “Fire have a very professional leadership with ambitions for a title”, said Friedrich, who played 264 games in the Bundesliga for Hertha BSC Berlin and VfL Wolfsburg, and was still in the German team at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.